Public Speaking Tips from the Apple Store

One of the things that we’re going to miss most about Steve Jobs now that he’s retired is his wonderful speaking style.

But you can learn just as much about communication from the Apple retail stores as from Apple’s founder.

I needed something for my new MacBook Pro recently. So during lunch one day, I went to the Apple Store at Lenox Square. You would have thought they were giving away money in there.

The other stores were almost empty. Why wouldn’t they be empty?  It was a weekday in the middle of March!

But the Apple Store, as always, was like a carnival.  Why?

The answers can tell us a lot about how to connect with people and sell ideas.

They’re Selling Bold, Life-Changing Ideas

Every time Apple puts out a new product, it’s positioned as something that will change your life. To the folks at Apple, the iPad isn’t just a new handheld computer. If you’re buying one for business, the advertisements say, it “changes the way you work.” If you’re buying it for school, “It’s a whole new kind of learning.”

Bold, life-changing ideas excite people. Or course, we can’t all be selling iPads.  But we can position our ideas more powerfully.

Next time you’re invited to speak to your client on workplace laws, don’t talk about “Changes in Sexual Harassment Legislation.”  Focus on something that people can get excited about: “Wipe Out Sexual Harassment in your Office.”

Don’t speak on “Everything you wanted to know about Non-disclosure agreements.”  Speak on “How to protect your business’ most important assets.”

The People are Authentic and Passionate

The Apple sales staff must be one of the most diverse collections of characters in the history of retail. They have nose rings and tattoos.  They’re from all ethnic groups and age ranges.  The elderly gentleman that helped me had a “ZZ Top” beard.  And he was passionate about Apple products.

That authentic passion makes going to the Apple store fun.

I’m not suggesting that you pierce your eyebrow before your next presentation. But neither should you try to be something that you’re not.  Be the same person that you are with your close friends.

I once worked with an accountant that told me that she wanted to learn to speak like one of the senior partners in her firm.

“I can’t help you with that,” I told her. “The goal is to be who you are when you’re talking to a good friend about something that you’re excited about.”

You get to do stuff in there

Before leaving the store, I took a moment to play with the new iPad. It was pretty cool.  Of course, lots of people go there just to play with the toys and never buy a thing.

What does this have to do with public speaking and persuasion?  It’s important to realize that people today gather information in a highly interactive way.   We click on links that take us places. We play games. We watch short videos.   We talk back by posting comments on blogs and message boards.

It’s hard to believe it now, but there was a time when people went out at night and listened to speeches as entertainment.  No more. We almost never let one person deliver information to us by talking at us non-stop for 30 minutes.

So if you’re speaking and you’re talking non-stop for long periods, your audience is probably not fully engaged.

At the very least, let your audience ask questions. Even better, give them puzzles or hypothetical questions to address.

At the Apple store, they understand that engagement is everything.  By focusing on big ideas, being ourselves, and making our messages interactive, we can engage as well.

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Public Speaking Lesson from the Ancient Greeks

The Ancient Greeks posited three keys to persuasion– logos, aka logic, pathos, aka emotion, and ethos, aka personal character or credibility.

Of the three, the most important is ethos. All the logical and emotional appeals mean nothing if the speaker has no credibility.

So let’s talk about how to boost credibility and persuasiveness for your presentations and meetings.

Build a relationship prior to the pitch. I worked recently with a construction firm competing for the chance to build a prison for a south Georgia county.  The same team had recently built a hospital for the county.  They had strong relationships with the key decision-makers.  As a result, the team came to that pitch with an enormous amount of credibility and eventually won.

You can build similar credibility before almost any presentation. Let’s say that you’re trying to persuade a committee to approve your budget.  Rather than show up and try to persuade with raw logic, build your credibility first by forming relationships with the decision-makers.

Make appointments to talk with the committee members before the final “pitch.” During those appointments, you’ll presell your ideas and shape your message to meet their needs.  You’ll also build relationships that will boost your credibility.

Dump the notes and make better eye contact. If you’re reading your notes, you’re not making good eye contact.  That undermines your credibility.

Many studies link eye contact and credibility.  I recently read a study from the 1970s conducted at the University of Missouri. The study compared a speech that was both read to an audience and delivered without notes. The listeners found the speaker without notes to be more credible. The listeners also retained more information from the speaker that didn’t read the speech.

Of course, we don’t need a study to convince us that eye contact builds credibility.   When I ask my daughter whether she’s done her homework, I listen to what she says. I also watch her eyes.

Take lots of Questions. I once helped a company create presentations to be delivered to employees of manufacturing plants that were closing down.  The managers wanted to tell the frightened and angry employees about their options.

The presentations were successful.  But the key wasn’t the formal “PowerPoint.”  Rather, the managers won credibility points by making it clear that they would take as many questions as needed. One presenter said, “If we have to, we’ll stay until two in the morning to answer all your questions.”

A willingness to take questions shows an openness that makes your audience believe in you.

Give tight answers.  A short answer is usually more credible than a longer answer.

Here are two answers to the question “How much will it cost?”

Bad answer: “How much it costs depends on how much time we put in. And how much time we put in depends on how fast we can get the information from the client.  Right now we don’t have a good sense of how much time that will take. But I’m guessing the cost will be $50,000.

Good answer:  We estimate it will cost $50,000. That could vary depending on issues of timing and information availability.

The good answer makes the speaker sound confident.

The Ancient Greeks understood that you can’t persuade without a strong ethos. It’s a lesson we should remember in modern times.

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The Listeners’ Bill of Rights

To stop government tyranny, the nation’s founders produced a Bill of Rights.

But how do we stop the tyranny of lousy speakers?

I propose a Listeners’ Bill of Rights.

  1. The right to a point of view. Statements like this are all too common: “Well there are two sides to the issue. I’m going to lay out both sides so that you can make an informed decision.”  No! Give both sides if you must.  But tell us what you think. We’ll decide if we agree.  Don’t be a wimp.
  2. The right not to remain silent. “Question Authority” may be a slogan from the 70s. But it’s come even more alive in the age of blogs, talk radio, text messages, and Twitter. Listeners today like to talk back and kick the tires.   Leave lots of time for Q&A.
  3. The right to brevity. One study indicates that after 17 minutes, no one is paying attention.   Most business presentations can be delivered in 15 minutes, even if you leave half the time for Q&A.
  4. The right to a story.  The more personal the better. I worked with a high school senior from Brazil as he prepared to speak at his baccalaureate service. He told of immigrating to the US on his journey to become a journalist.  Even the tough guys in the audience cried. And the girls swooned.
  5. The right to a solution.  Don’t just tell me the “Recent Developments in Labor and Employment Law.” Tell me how I can be more successful using the latest law to represent my clients. I don’t come to speeches for information. I come for solutions to my life’s key challenges.
  6. The right to passion. You don’t have to be like Vince the ShamWow Guy. But do you have to be like one of those ferns that adorn the lobby of your office?  Smile!  Speak with the same passion that you use when you’re talking about UGA football.
  7. The right not to be read to. If you’re going to read your speech, just send it to me by email instead. I’ll  have my iPhone read it to me while I’m driving.   That way I don’t have to feel my life being sucked out of me in your lame meeting when instead I could be doing something important, like watching my daughter play lacrosse.
  8. The right to a simple message.  Here’s a recipe for one of the best speeches you’ll ever give. Start by saying “There are three questions I’ll bet you want to know about this topic.”  Then list the three questions and answer them. Then take questions.
  9. The right to minimal slides.  “Power Corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” Those are the words of Edward Tufte, the graphic designer who claims that PowerPoint was partly responsible for the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster.  Tufte claimed that bullet-point laden PowerPoint slides confused a critical technical issue.  Whether you agree or not, too many complex slides confuse the audience. Keep it simple.
  10. 10.  To right to be loved. Great speakers understand that the only reason they exist is to help their listeners. So they focus every bit of energy on helping their audience with key issues and delivering messages in a way that connects.
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For Difficult Conversations, Show Up in Person and Take Questions

Seth Godin had a nice post recently about how to handle tough conversations.  He says, “When the outcome of a conversation is in doubt, don’t do it by email. And show up in person if you can.”

I would only add, “And make sure that you’re willing to give honest answers to all questions.” Your ability to take all questions boosts your credibility as the bearer of bad news.



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Can You Spot Fake Smiles?

There’s a cool test on BBC’s website that measures your ability to know when someone’s smile is genuine.  To take the test, click here.

Here’s a hint. The secret is watching the eyes.

Here’s the debriefing given by the website  on how to tell the difference between a real and a fake smile.

Although fake smiles often look very similar to genuine smiles, they are actually slightly different, because they are brought about by different muscles, which are controlled by different parts of the brain.

Fake smiles can be performed at will, because the brain signals that create them come from the conscious part of the brain and prompt the zygomaticus major muscles in the cheeks to contract. These are the muscles that pull the corners of the mouth outwards.

Genuine smiles, on the other hand, are generated by the unconscious brain, so are automatic. When people feel pleasure, signals pass through the part of the brain that processes emotion. As well as making the mouth muscles move, the muscles that raise the cheeks –  the orbicularis oculi and the pars orbitalis – also contract, making the eyes crease up, and the eyebrows dip slightly.

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Public Speaking Tip from Liz Taylor’s Eyebrows

When the Elizabeth Taylor died earlier this year, the world lost one of history’s greatest pairs of eyebrows. They were magnificent.  And as a public speaking coach, I consider myself quite a connoisseur of eyebrows.

They are one of the most expressive tools we have as communicators.

The Science of Eyebrows

Eyebrows have always been known as a way to make women look sexy. During the 18th century, full eyebrows in Western Europe were considered so important that some upper class ladies were said to affix mouse hide to their foreheads.

But there is more to the eyebrow than just beauty. They are a critical part of how we express ourselves.

Indeed, there has been a fair amount of anthropological study of eyebrows. Social scientist Dr. Paul Ekman has an entire section of his book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage dedicated to reading eyebrows.

It seems that eyebrows are critical landmarks that define our faces and give them distinctive looks and expressions. When people talk about the expressiveness of the eyes, what they’re really referring to are the eyebrows.

I read about an eyebrow study done at MIT. Volunteers were shown celebrity faces like Richard Nixon and Winona Ryder.   When the faces were digitally altered to eliminate the eyes, the volunteers were able to identify the celebrities with little problem. But if the researchers eliminated the eyebrows, the volunteers’ ability to recognize the faces dropped dramatically.

Where would Jack Nicholson or Groucho Marx be without their eyebrows? And what about Mr. Spock?  His eyebrows were his only way of expressing emotion.

Use Eyebrows  To Show Intensity

The best speakers find ways to convey passion and intensity.  You can express that passion with your voice or by smiling. But I’ve found that exaggerating eyebrow movement is a great way of injecting intensity into your message.

I was working recently with a senior executive from a large water utility. He had an incredibly bored look to his face.  And when I told him to try smiling, it just didn’t work.  It looked like he was in pain.

So I said, “Try exaggerating your eyebrows. Imagine that you’re Jim Carrey.”  And it worked.  Suddenly, he came across as expressive and animated rather than bored.

When I left the practice of law, I had a coach to help me with my speaking skills. The number one piece of critical feedback I received was that my facial energy was weak. As I spoke, I seemed bored.  I spent a lot of time working on my facial energy. Specifically, I worked on activating my eyebrows.

Develop Your Eyebrow Smile

It’s easy to develop a great eyebrow smile.  Stand in front of a mirror and practice speaking. As you speak, force your eyebrows up. You might be amazed at how it warms your features and makes you look expressive.

Try it. And have a nice thought for Liz Taylor.

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“Microstyle”: New Book on Keeping It Tight

“We don’t always have to be clever, thank goodness. Often, simply being clear is enough.”

Those are the first words of a new book by blogger and consultant Christopher Johnson called Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little.  It received a rave review from The New York Times.

While Johnson’s book is about writing, we certainly think many of his ideas apply will apply for speaking as well.  One of the things we often tell our clients is that too many people sacrifice clarity at the alter of clever.

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Public Speaking Lessons from Bernie Madoff

Reading recently about Bernie Madoff’s polished communication skills, I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings:  “You can take a kitty cat and put it in the oven. But that don’t make it a biscuit.”

In other words, you are what you are.  You can learn to express your ideas better and to connect better with listeners. But all the public speaking training in the world won’t change your heart.

Madoff , who will spend the rest of his life in prison for defrauding investors of millions, was apparently a smooth communicator.   At least that’s the impression of Diana B. Henriques, the New York Times reporter and author of the newly published The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.

Henriques gave a fascinating interview about her experiences with Madoff for the website Huffington Post. Here are three communication lessons from Bernie Madoff.

Madoff Lesson 1: You Can Improve Your Skills Over Time

Henriques said that as a business journalist she had known Madoff many years before the scandal that sent him to jail.  But when she first interviewed him in jail, she was struck by how polished he had become since their last meeting.

When I first met him in prison, my first impression was how polished he had become since I had known him 15 years earlier, even in his prison uniform. Every crease is crisp, every button is buttoned. His belt is shiny, his shoes gleam. Very much the dandy, even in prison. And very much in control of our conversation. He had a very engaging, low-key style. Never took his eyes off of me. [He] leaned forward and was very interested in everything I had to say. A few little jokes, a little bit of flattery. But very much on-message.

This portrait of Madoff’s improved skills struck me in light of a conversation I had recently with a lawyer from a major Atlanta law firm who wanted to know if people could really improve their skills.  “Do people really work at this stuff?” he asked.

The answer is yes. With work and focus, you can improve.  Just ask Bernie Madoff.

Madoff Lesson 2:  Make People feel Good About Themselves

There’s an old saying that everyone’s favorite radio station is “MMFG-AM”: “Make Me Feel Good About Myself.”   Madoff understood that idea.

Henriques points out that unlike many con men,  Madoff was not charismatic. But he did know how to make you feel good.

Madoff was never the most charming man in the room. But, he could make you feel like you were the most charming person in the room. That was the magic. He could reflect back on you a very attractive image of yourself that made you feel good. I felt it. I’m sitting there interviewing him in this prison and I’m feeling like I’m one of the best reporters he’s ever known. He bounces it back — that feeling of, “Oh, you’re so interesting, you’re so competent, you’re so professional.” It’s an amazing gift.

Madoff was apparently the kind of listener who made great eye contact and knew how to seem interested.  Flattery, it turns out, will get you everywhere – including, eventually, prison.

Madoff Lesson 3:  You Can’t Polish Turd

Finally, Henriques said that Madoff was fascinating but not likeable.    “To be candid,” she said,  “he frightened me a little because he was so unpredictable and so untrustworthy.”

A well-spoken rat is still a rat.

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Get Your Shtick Together To Speak Better in Impromptu Settings

Speaking impromptu is hard.  Ask the average person in a meeting to “update us on the project you’re working on,” and if they’re not prepared, you hear a disorganized mess.

It’s just show up and throw up.

But if you have trouble coming across as organized in impromptu settings, you might take a lesson from comics who rely on repeated routines to churn out reliable laughs.

These repeated routines are called “shticks”. And if you want to learn how to quickly organize your thoughts in a meeting, you should consider developing your own shtick.  Such routines can help make you sound smooth impromptu.

A “shtick” is a Yiddish term for a comic routine.  For performers, a shtick is a standard bit that they return to over and over again to reliably get laughs.

Johnny Carson could always get a laugh with his Carnac the Magnificent shtick.

Jack Benny’s shtick was that he was cheap.

Rodney Dangerfield’s shtick was “I don’t get no respect.”

But you can use a non-comic shtick or routine to quickly organize your thoughts and reliably get you through impromptu speaking situations.

There are many impromptu speaking shticks that you can rely on, some of which you may already know.

Let’s say that someone asks you to tell what’s going on with a major project.

You can use the “Good news bad news” shtick.  You’d say, “Well there is the good news and the bad news. “  And then you can organize your thoughts around those two ideas.

One of my clients told me that he uses the “ Three Ons” shtick. In meetings, he organizes his thoughts around “Whether we’re ‘on budget’, ‘on schedule’ and ‘on scope.’”

We tell our clients to organize their thoughts around the following three-point shtick.

  1. What’s happened so far?
  2. What are the challenges?
  3. And what are we doing to meet the challenges?

These shticks quickly put your thoughts into a little organized story that your listeners can easily follow.

Let’s say that someone says to you “Carl, why don’t you update us on what’s happening with the Marietta Project?”

Rather than speaking in a stream-of-consciousness ramble, you’d turn to your shtick, laying out your simple story.

“Well it’s going quite well but we’re having a few issues. Let me talk about what’s happened so far, the challenges that we’re facing and how we’re planning to meet those challenges.”

You’d then go through the three things you’ve described.  “Let me start with where things stand right now.”  After detailing the status, you’d say, “Now let me talk about the challenges we’re seeing.”  After detailing the challenges,, you’d turn to the final point of the shtick: “Finally, let’s talk about what we’re doing about these challenges.”

Shticks don’t only make it easy on the listener. They make it easy for the speaker as well.  The shtick relieves you of having to think about how to structure your thoughts.  Rather you just rely on the template that’s already in your head.

Next time you’re faced with having to speak impromptu, rely on a simple shtick to pull your thoughts together.

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